Generating the Voice of the Customer

Getting product requirements right is the first step to building a product that becomes a commercial success. Yet, too often organizations do not pay enough attention to how the Voice of the Customer (VOC) is generated. Products that are successful in the marketplace avoid falling in to these three VOC generation traps. VOC is not a set of product specifications provided by the customer. VOC is also not the responsibility of a one man team but includes cross-functional individuals who are stakeholders of the product. Lastly, VOC is not locked at the beginning of the product development process.

In determining what the product requirements are, asking the customer for what product they want prevents an organization from blue sky thinking. Instead, VOC questions are focused on as described by Clayton Christensen on identifying the unmet need or what is the job that needs to get done. These questions maybe framed in a way of statements describing high level features that help the customer perform a job. In order to understand how important a feature is, asking the customer why it is important using a five why approach helps get to the root cause of the problem the customer is trying to solve. Next, it is also necessary to understand who the competitors are. Recently, the CEO of Netflix described that his company is competing with sleep. Such thinking creates a scenario that is disruptive and gives rise to breakthrough thinking in identifying the right product requirements. Finally, understand who the customer or customers are. Customers are not always users of the product but may also include those who need to sell the product, internal and external approvers of the product, or even those in the organization who will manufacture or service the product.

In understanding what the product should be, it is important to ask the right questions. Expecting one person to come up with those questions can result in building a product that may at best be only slightly better than its competitors. Hence, cross-functional thinking helps identify the questions in order to understand the product from different angles such as engineering, manufacturing, clinical, service, or regulatory. Having multiple functions at a VOC discussion with a customer creates a richer VOC experience through the power of collective intelligence.

VOC is often done early at the beginning of the project to create user needs and demonstrate feasibility of product design based on design inputs. However, products are not built overnight; some take years to be commercialized. During this time, newer products or technologies may have come into the marketplace. There could also be newer guidelines regulating how a product is manufactured or sold. Recently, FDA opened the doors to begin regulating laboratory developed tests, which currently only require CLIA certification. Developers of new laboratory developed tests need to keep in  mind that by the time they bring a test to market, it may require additional regulatory approval. It is a good practice to continually vet the VOC in the marketplace and at certain phase gates to alpha test the product so that it can be confirmed that it does meet the customer’s unmet need or does the job customer wants done.

Avoiding these common pitfalls in VOC collection allows for generation of user needs and product requirements needed to make the product a commercial success. Understanding the unmet need or the job to be done is essential to building the right product and not just finding “faster horses” as Henry Ford put it. Next, it is important to approach VOC from a cross-functional perspective. Having multiple perspectives creates a more fruitful discussion with customers and prevents gaps in communication or translation. Finally, keep VOC current and routinely vet at phase gates to ensure the product is not obsolete at commercial launch.


Additional Reading and Links:

The Power of Designing Products For Customers You Don’t Have

Know Your Customer’s “Jobs to be Done”

Milkshakes Understanding the Job